Empty rooms scattered with photos of their loved ones, cautious outings restricted by masks and social distancing mark the isolating reality of COVID-19 for many senior citizens. However, they can find hope within the glow of a computer screen.
The Senior Ambassador Program, or SAP, is a virtual learning program where students from the Social Science Scholars Program are matched with seniors in the East Lansing community to reduce loneliness and build strong, intergenerational relationships.
Two professors, John Waller, director of the Social Science Scholars Program, and Clare Luz, founding director of an organization called AgeAlive, teamed up to create this pilot project.
“(Loneliness) is such a massive issue, but of course it’s usually an invisible one for obvious reasons,” Waller said. “People don’t broadcast the fact that they’re feeling lonely. It can take a lot of courage to state that you’re lonely and then seek help.”
The students and seniors will participate in group activities and meet one-on-one for about an hour each week, all through Zoom video calls.
“The end goal is for isolated seniors to engage in really meaningful, positive activities and feel more connected to (the) community, have better quality of life, all of those things,” Luz said. “Which, you know, there’s a ripple effect. If you have better physical and mental health and quality of life, there’s all kinds of benefits.”
Luz has experience in the direct care workforce and studied to be a gerontologist — a person that studies old age. She is also involved with other programs dealing with ageism, like AgeAlive. She wanted to extend her values to Michigan State with a sustainable program where students could participate.
“It’s well-aligned with MSU’s goals to contribute to society and to help make society more healthy and have a higher quality of life, it matches our land-grant mission,” Luz said. “We felt this was something we could really do of value, not only to the university but to society. I love that it’s intergenerational; it’s cross-disciplinary; it’s campus community; it’s all of those really positive things that we aspire to do.”
Luz and Waller also have a partnership with the PrimeTime Seniors Program, where they found senior citizens who are willing to participate. Marcia Van Ness, a PrimeTime member and MSU alumnus, was asked to serve on the planning committee after commenting on some of the program’s work.
“I think this is an exciting new way to bring people together and get to know each other in the community,” Van Ness said.
Because of its potential to make a change, the SAP was awarded the AARP Community Challenge 2020 grant. There were more than 2,800 applicants and only two programs from Michigan won, according to the grant website. The money is helping the team kick-start their program with technology resources.
The hope is that the program helps students and seniors relate to each other regardless of age. It’s designed to be mutually beneficial — while reducing loneliness among seniors, it also provides benefits for students to be connected with someone they wouldn’t normally interact with.
“This is a great opportunity for students as well,” Waller said. “They get to spend an hour or so a week with somebody with at least three times as much life experience, and I think that’s really, really important. It’s a chance for the students to slow down and set their work aside and simply work on connecting with another person.”
Van Ness hopes the communication with students will build strong connections with the two groups.
“I think it’s beneficial to both arenas: the senior arena and the student arena,” Van Ness said. “I think it’s going to just enhance the understanding between two areas of our community — there are many areas of our community — but these two, I think it’ll build a new area of understanding what other people are facing and going through.”
Before the program launched, Social Science Scholars sent surveys to seniors in East Lansing, created training programs and built systems to match students and seniors.
Luz and Waller approached human resources and labor relations masters student Haley Nash and interdisciplinary studies in social science senior Erykah Benson and asked them to serve as training coordinators for the SAP.
“It was a really daunting task to be given and there was a lot of self-doubt of, like, 'am I really the best person to be working on this,' 'do I really know what I’m doing?'” Nash said. “But it’s really shown me that even going in kind of blind to a situation I can tackle that and feel fulfillment from it.”
Although both students are associated with the College of Social Science, they hadn’t focused specifically on age discrimination before.
“It was like a different perspective and a different whole area of an industry that I didn’t even think of,” Benson said. “I was just really interested in the chance to be a part of it and the fact that we’re serving a community’s need.”
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After getting started, both Nash and Benson became dedicated to their roles. When the program formally begins, they will lead interactive virtual training for participants that fit privacy guidelines, teach effective listening skills and educate about age discrimination.
“Every meeting we have, we sit down and we get stuff done,” Nash said. “We’re very driven, and this is a project we really want to see through to the end and we want to see it done well.”
In the future, Waller and Luz want to see this program become important to MSU. They’ve built the foundation, and they hope to see people use it more broadly, perhaps in other areas.
“This is a real opportunity to demonstrate that it works, provide a model for how one can set it up — particularly now in Zoom land, and then inspire other communities to pick up on it,” Waller said.
Now, they’re just waiting for approval to launch the SAP. Seeing their program in action digitally might also inspire their motivation to expand, adding validation to the hard work they’ve put into it.
“By going digital, you erase geographic boundaries,” Luz said. “So, instead of being able to just service the East Lansing area, you know, if this pilot project goes well there’s potential for offering this statewide. So, this is something that could be a real feather in MSU’s cap, and we want to make sure it’s set up right and the infrastructure is in place for it to be a real sustainable program that can thrive.”
The team of community members, MSU faculty and students hope to open the program up to other students in the future. Now that they have the foundation, they’re eager to see the benefits extend beyond the classroom.
“I also think it provides really useful practice in enlarging one’s empathy for others, learning how to ask questions and build a deep understanding of another human,” Waller said. “Often, because we’re so busy, we simply don’t take the time, we don’t have the time to really get to understand somebody’s life, whose life’s journey has been fundamentally different from our own.”
This article is part of our Living a Remote Life print edition. View the entire issue here.
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